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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

BRUNO (2009)

The gayest man in the known universe, Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his adopted son, O.J.

Maybe it's a sign of me aging, but as I laughed my ass off while watching BRUNO, I actually had to stop and ask myself if I was becoming a PC hypocrite.

At first glace, BRUNO seems to be an uncomfortable and ultra-offensive lampoon of the stereotypical flamboyant gay Euro-fashionista archetype, a cinematic confection designed to make the Joe Sixpacks in the audience laugh at the outrageous and occasionally borderline-pornographic (some would say full-on pornographic) antics of a "faggot." Following the titular character's quest for fame in the wake of his Austrian TV show getting canceled after unintentionally disrupting a high profile fashion show, the film goes on an international odyssey of offense as comedian/actor Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Bruno and unleashes him upon an unsuspecting world that believes he's 100% for real. Cohen's earlier comedic alter-egos, Ali G and Borat, mined comedy gold with their fusion of a fictional character and unwitting real-life people interacting with them and in the process revealing their own off the cuff prejudices and stupidity, and for me the results were often uneven with the joke wearing thin fairly quickly. Not so with Bruno, because if there's one hatred that crosses every cultural barrier, for those who are so inclined, it's the hatred of homosexuals in general and camp gay men in particular, and in many ways homophobia is the last form of prejudice considered generally acceptable. During the course of Bruno's journey, Sacha Baron Cohen throws Bruno's almost impossibly exaggerated gayness into the faces of all who get within range and the real reactions Bruno elicits from some of his targets come dangerously close to turning violent. There were several moments where I honestly feared that Cohen as Bruno would be lynched, stoned to death, shot or torn limb from limb as he provoked the ire of the world's citizenry. Among the film's many, many moments of frighteningly provocative content can be found:
  • Bruno traipsing around an orthodox neighborhood in Israel while dressed in a skimpy caricature of traditional Hassidic garb and getting chased for real by offended orthodox Jewish men.
  • Bruno's appearance on THE RICHARD BAY SHOW as a guest who was allegedly there to discuss the problems of being a single parent. Appearing in front of an all-black audience, Bruno is greeted warmly at first, but the audience soon grows cold and hostile when they realize he's a gay single parent. Then things take a turn for the worse when Bruno brings out his son, an adorable baby boy who he declares, with a completely deadpan face, that he obtained in Africa from a mother who happily swapped the child for an iPod. Then, just when it could not possibly get any more uncomfortable, Bruno announces his respect for African culture by naming his son O.J., a declaration that nearly caused every head in the room to explode. If you've never seen a group of ready-to-kill black folks, this sequence will tell you all you ever need to know.
  • Bruno's sit-down with an actual Jordanian terrorist leader, to whom he describes "your king Osama" as looking like "a homeless Santa Claus." Needless to say, the terrorist was in no way amused.
  • A hunting trip in the deep woods with a pack of shotgun-wielding DELIVERANCE rejects that goes south once the hunters twig to Bruno's status as a Friend of Dorothy.
  • The incredible "Straight Dave's Man-Slammin' Maxout," a live mixed martial arts show staged in Arkansas for a crowd of boozed-up, baseball cap-wearing swastika-tattooed rednecks. Bruno, in the heavily disguised persona of announcer "Straight Dave," works the crowd into a frenzy reminiscent of a neo-Nazi rally, bringing the good ol' boys and gals to their feet, where they proudly raise fists into the air and shout "Straight Pride!!!" without a hint of irony.
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly filled with "Straight Pride," especially as represented by these fine specimens of uber-butch straightness. Note the t-shirt slogan.

What happens next must be seen to be believed, so I'll let you rent the film and witness the horror/hilarity for yourself. All I'll say is that Cohen should be given an award for permanently ruining Celine Dion's odious "My Heart Will Go On" in much the same way that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE forever tainted "Singin' in the Rain" or how PINK FLAMINGOS forever destroyed all hope of listening to "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" without picturing a three-hundred pound drag queen chewing on a real, freshly-laid dog turd.

About as un-PC as a film can possibly hope to be, BRUNO reveals the idiocy of homophobia in a perhaps necessarily transgressive way and upon my first viewing of it I initially was unsure if I felt okay with being amused by this completely unbelievable stereotype writ large. I grew up as one of the handful of blacks in a hostile environment and as a result I understand how other groups get pissed off at depictions that denigrate them, plus I grew up with plenty of kids who knew they were homosexual from an early age and were rightly unashamed about it, so I never had the hatred of gays and lesbians that seems common just about everywhere in this country (to say nothing of the world).

But, if truth be told, I often found outrageous gay characters who were written or portrayed by non-gays to be very funny in their sheer exaggeration, depending on the character, and I lumped such shenanigans with similar media depictions of every other religious and ethnic group since the dawn of mass-market entertainment. While many rail against the frequently offensive treatment of blacks in popular entertainment, I have often laughed my ass off at stuff like Mantan Moreland's characters in films from the 1940's, sassy and corpulent mammies in damned near every antebellum plantation story who all but told their white masters to go fuck themselves, and, my personal favorite, bug-eyed "oogah-boogah" natives in jungle adventure flicks. Those characters are so over-the-top that I find them to be nothing more than the broadest of caricatures and as such I feel no offense at them. And when it came to icons of outright queerness in pop culture, no one stands as high in my estimation as Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith (who was never explicitly stated as being gay, but come on), Graham Chapman's various uber-queeny and mincing characters on MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS — my favorite being the flaming announcer who refutes Terry Jones' Viking's claims of all Viking voyages being "dead butch" after of course derisively greeting him with "Hello, sailor" — Charles Nelson Reilly, and the truly incredible living definition of "catty" that was Paul Lynde, one of the most hilariously caustic human beings ever to draw breath. I laughed with those guys and not at them, so when confronted with BRUNO, I was initially not sure if my laughter was with or at the protagonist, and I felt like some asshole who was taking part in a bit of casual fag-bashing.

Then I watched the rest of the film.

The Bruno character is exactly the kind of uber-fruit that sets the teeth of the uber-straight on edge and when Cohen trots him into situations that are likely not to welcome such a character, what happens is the often jaw-dropping exposure of the unwitting victims' intolerance. The things said and done by Cohen's targets are simultaneously hilarious and deeply mortifying, and while the knuckle-dragging is truly appalling to watch, I had to wonder if most of the people whose worlds Bruno shakes up have ever met a real-life gay person. I would say not, because how anyone could believe Bruno was in any way a real guy and not the greatly exaggerated actor-portrayed caricature that he so obviously is defies all logic and common sense. I've known some very flamboyant guys over the years, but a person as extreme as Bruno would most likely severely irk even the most in-your-face screaming queen and his completely obscene antics would absolutely land his ass in jail. He's definitely believable upon first encounter, but Bruno very quickly would be perceived by most average people as a put-on, and those seen in the film who don't twig to that immediately are idiots blinded to the obvious by their fag-hate.

This intimate champagne moment occurs around five minutes into the movie, so you can imagine where things go from here.

I highly recommend BRUNO to anyone who can handle it, but I have to ask how a film so rife with incredibly tasteless comedy and graphic depictions of grossly exaggerated homosexual sex, complete with up close and dangling male genitalia, both of the real and artificial varieties, could be awarded an R-rating by the ever-mercurial MPAA. They've handed out the dreaded NC-17 for far less — for example, John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME (2004) was thus rated due to mere spoken descriptions of questionable sex acts — so I would love to know why BRUNO got off so relatively easily. But whatever the case, BRUNO is a triumph of make-you-think social satire and fucking hilarious tasteless humor and I consider it one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Humor is of course purely subjective, but this shit is a total riot that I do not recommend watching with your parents or your your kids.

And make sure to watch it again with the compelling commentary by Cohen and director Larry Charles.

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